Jamming the Jazz Section

When the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians’ Union was put on trial in March 1987 and two of its leaders were jailed, there was some confusion in the West about what had actually happened. Was jazz being banned in Czechoslovakia? Was playing jazz the crime of Karel Srp and Vladimir Kouril, the main defendants at the trial?

To sort out the confusion one has to have some knowledge of Marxism. Marxism in power, that is: not Marxism in books, in the universities, or in opposition. Marxism has been in power in Czechoslovakia since 1948. In 1968, the Marxist regime created a situation by which, had it not been for the Soviet ambush, Marxism would have been turned into an opposition force. Nothing would have been healthier, both for Czechoslovak society and for that nineteenth-century political semi-science itself.

Although Czech society before Dubcek went through remarkable cultural and political ferment, it was still ruled firmly by Marxists and retained many features of Stalinism. One such feature was the elitist and monopolistic artists’ unions. Their leaders, in some respects already heretical, were still not prepared to accept initiatives “from below” that would elude control “from above.” Two lively literary magazines, Kveten in the late Fifties and Tvár in the mid-Sixties, were suppressed with the silent approval of the same Party “liberals” who later, during the short reign of Alexander Dubcek, became full-fledged dissenters. Until 1968 writers like Václav Havel and, for that matter, myself, although popular with mass audiences and perhaps not much worse aesthetically than the “artists of merit,” were not deemed eligible to join the elite as members of the Writers’ Union.

But if the Writers’ Union was elitist, the Union of Composers and Concert Artists was even more so. Its membership was restricted precisely to two top categories: composers of “serious” music and virtuosos. Rank-and-file professional musicians had to join the huge Union of Employees of Cultural Institutions, which, supposedly representing the interests of everyone from theater ushers to assistants in shooting galleries, in fact represented only the interests of the Party. In the permissive atmosphere of the Dubcek year, however, the musicians among these pariahs organized themselves into the Czech Musicians’ Union, and since they did not issue any compromising manifestos, they survived the Soviet military Putsch well into the era of “normalization” in the Seventies and Eighties. In 1971 a group of jazz musicians—for whom, naturally, there had never been any place among the aristocracy of the Union of Concert Artists—saw an opportunity in the Musicians’ Union, seized it, and became a section of that union—its Jazz Section.

During the first few years of its existence the Jazz Section “behaved.” It organized lectures on jazz and sponsored jazz concerts, of which the most ambitious eventually became the Prague Jazz Days festival. Conceived in 1974, this was intended to be a regular yearly event, protected from possible ideological attack by scholarly sounding “themes.” Thus the topic of the first Jazz Days was “The Roots …

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